Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Mumbling Near Excellence: Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville (My New Artist Of The Month!)

The Good: Good lyrics, Some very good tunes, Emotionally relevant
The Bad: Low-key vocals hard to discern at some points
The Basics: More pop-rock than rock and roll, Liz Phair's debut - Exile In Guyville ranks high for artistry, though I was not impressed by the lack of emotional resonance and often understated vocals.

Before I started listening to Liz Phair, all I truly new about her and her musical work was that I couldn't find where she appeared on Sheryl Crow's Greatest Hits (she does backing vocals on the hit song "Soak Up The Sun"), I heard and liked her radio-friendly hit "Why Can't I" a few years ago, and that on her debut album Exile In Guyville, one of her songs had the much cited lyric "I'll fuck you 'til your dick is blue" ("Flower"). This line from "Flower" was cited in reviews I read back in high school that were illustrating that Liz Phair was presenting hard-core, direct lyrics and in reviews for her follow-up albums, it seemed to be the line that was always cited to recapture the notion of Liz Phair expressing something deeply honest or woman-empowering. So, the truth is, when I sat down to listen to Exile In Guyville, I was expecting something a lot harder edged than what the artist actually presented.

So, for those who are not familiar with Liz Phair, this review will offer you a very pure understanding of who Liz Phair is, via her music, on her major label debut, Exile In Guyville. Liz Phair is not Sheryl Crow, but she might as well be. While I was anticipating something much heavier - musically and thematically - than what Exile In Guyville actually is, Liz Phair is essentially a pop-rock artist whose next of kin seems to be Sheryl Crow. While Crow is five year's Phair's senior, both made their major label debut in 1993 and the fundamental difference between Phair and Crow is that while Crow's musical performance insinuates an "aww, shucks, I'm a rock star" attitude, Phair's musical persona is more "I'm gonna mumble out some rock and roll, I hope you like it, check mike, here goes." If Crow's underpinning is an exuberant country girl, Phair's roots seem to be presented as mellow, kinda-grungy moody lone girl rocking through the world. Phair's song "Stratford-On-Guy" sounds almost exactly like Sheryl Crow.

The Crow-Phair comparison I'm making is to give a crystal clear example of who Phair sounds like musically. It's an interesting sidenote of career parallelism; had Tuesday Night Music Club (reviewed here!) not had the upbeat radio hit "All I Wanna Do," perhaps Crow would have had as commercially a difficult time as Phair. But essentially, Phair and Crow are producing similar music at the stage their debuts were released.

On Exile In Guyville, Liz Phair sings in mumbling tones about sex, love and coming-of-age. She does it with such an effective voice and presentation that I was astonished to learn that Phair was in her mid-twenties when the album was released. My surprise over her age comes from the lyrics, which paint her as younger, with desperately pleading "I want a boyfriend" ("Fuck and Run") and referencing number two pencils ("Canary"). These - among others - created a persona that seemed more high school age than post-college.

Liz Phair wrote the lyrics and music for all eighteen tracks on Exile In Guyville and she co-produced the album, which is a good sign as far as I'm concerned. This establishes Phair instantly as a serious artist, concerned with crafting her image and art on her own. In addition to providing the lead vocals for her poems, she plays guitar and piano on the album, making her integral at every level of producing her sound, image and artistic work. The result is something that sound very authentic and generally individual. This is her voice, as in statement, being presented and it is generally presented well.

Phair's lyrics oscillate between strongly individual and expressive and desperately repetitive. The latter note is based on the fact that at seconds over 55 minutes, Exile In Guyville's eighteen songs average under three minutes and most are heavily repetitive. "Never Said," opens with the line "I never said nothing" and repeats the line seventeen times, which is a lot for a 3:16 song, especially when that line contains notes that are held. The hyperbole of this might well be "Gunshy," where the title word is repeated 18 times in the 3:15 song.

Better than the repetitive quality is the unique quality that presents Liz Phair as a young woman with something to say. The thing is, given how much positive press and the reviews that declared Phair a strong rock and roll presence, I was surprised how "pop" Phair is on Exile In Guyville. I recall reading reviews by disappointed fans when 2003's "Liz Phair" was released for how it was a pop album and I'm surprised because Exile In Guyville is strongly pop-rock. Songs like "Mesmerizing" include jingle-like refrains with pop-rock guitars and the faux clapping sound (ironically sounding a lot like Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do" or her later "A Change Will Do You Good"). This is a very pop album.

But let's return to that classic line from "Flower." I suspect that Phair has been declared a hard rock woman because of such titles as "Fuck and Run" and because the lyrical directness of songs like "Flower." The thing is, the context of every professional review of Liz Phair's works that cited "Flower," seemed to indicate that Phair was a sexually-frank, self-empowered woman and the thing is, I didn't hear that. On "Flower," she melodically, hypnotically lists the carnal acts she is prepared to do. To wit, she sings, "Every time I see your face / I think of things unpure unchaste / I want to fuck you like a dog / I'll take you home and make you like it . . . I'll f*ck you and your minions too . . ." It's not sexually empowering, it's not romantic, it's barely sexual; as sung, Phair presents herself in this song as a sexual drone, ready to put out with such extreme frequency as to, well, ". . . fuck you 'til your dick is blue." It's more explicit than Britney Spears' "Slave 4 You," but it has about the same amount of passion and disregard for anything meaningful.

My point here is that there's a difference between being sexually explicit and sexually empowered. I see empowerment as being in control of one's own body and I think the healthy empowerment in this regard is the determination to find meaning and sexual definition on one's own terms. For me, that involves some search for emotional gratification through the sex act. Without that, it's just a list of positions and, well, acts. It's just sex. And Phair's portrayal is explicit, but she could as easily be singing about life on the streets as a woman obsessing over a boy. "Flower" is not passionate, it's barely intriguing after the first listen.

It's also barely decipherable. Presented as a two-part rock hymn, "Flower" has an upper register refrain that is repeated combined with a lower register vocal presentation that ultimately creates a song that is somewhat hard to hear. Especially because Phair mumbles through the vocals. This is professionally called low-fi sound (low-fidelity), but it boils down to having to work to figure out what Phair is saying on a lot of tracks.

And the question is, is it worth the effort to decipher Phair's lyrics? It was "Shatter" - the longest track on the album - that finally sold me on the effort. On "Shatter," Phair seems most honest about the persona she's presenting on the album when she recognizes the consequences of the promiscuity and desire she articulates, when she sings, ". . . something about just being with you / Slapped me right in the face / Nearly broke me in two / It's a mark / I've taken hard / And I know I will carry with me for a long long time." It's the most emotionally connected Phair gets to her audience and I liked that.

Otherwise, this is an album about a young woman coming of age and there's no real love, just sex. And I like the sound, it's a solid album, but the content is nowhere near as deep as I had thought it would be. So, where Heather Nova's debut album Glowstars (reviewed here!) resonated with me for its emotional honesty and impressed me with the poetics of how connected Nova was to her emotional core, I felt none of that with Phair. I was impressed by her musical diversity; within the confines of a pop-rock album, Exile In Guyville has a nice mix of tempos, instrumental sounds and styles that feels more experimental and creative than sloppy and lacking direction.

If you're looking for a pop-rock album with direct, sexually explicit lyrics, Exile In Guyville is definitely a good choice. But it's not an empowering album and Liz Phair is not a hard rocking woman, but instead a somewhat low-key pop-rock artist who never got the radio airplay of Sheryl Crow.

As an irony, on the song "Fuck and Run," Phair mumbles the refrain in such a way that my first listen - admittedly politically biased - sounded like "fuck Enron." How timely! :)

I enjoyed the consequences of relationships song "Divorce Song" most over my repeated listens, "Stratford-On-Guy" left the least impression on me.

For other, former, Artist Of The Month, selections, please check out my reviews of:
The Road Less Traveled: Greatest Hits - Melissa Etheridge
The Best Of Janis Ian - Janis Ian
Beginnings - Shania Twain


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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